For Laurel Martin, the Irish traditional music she plays on her fiddle isn’t simply about notes on a staff, or melody, or rhythm. It’s also the suggestion of images, places and times, and the presence of the people who have inhabited the music.
“There are tunes or phrases of tunes that make me imagine, say, water on a rock or a soft wind blowing through the trees,” says Martin, a Westford resident. “I love how instrumental music, while it may have no words, can convey all kinds of messages if you open yourself up to the possibilities.
“When you listen to players you enjoy, especially the musicians from other eras, it really is music from another time – even another world,” she adds. “And you can find yourself asking, ‘What was it the people who made these tunes were trying to say? What did they see, what did they experience, that made this music happen?’ I honestly feel it’s a privilege to play, and be a vessel for, this music and all that went into it.”
It is this sense of wonderment and respect for her forebears in the Irish music tradition that gives Martin’s fiddling a particularly empathetic quality – and has helped make her one of the most respected American-born Irish musicians of the past couple of decades. She has performed at venues and events throughout New England, including Boston College’s Gaelic Roots festival (and concert series), the New World Festival, Fiddle Hell, Blackstone River Theater, Burren Backroom and BCMFest (including this year’s festival, held last month). Martin also has become a valued teacher and mentor, and has been the recipient of two Massachusetts Cultural Council grants to support her work with young musicians.
Late last year, she released her second solo album, “Larks and Thrushes,” the long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s “The Groves.” She has also recorded as a member of the Boston-based fiddle ensemble “Childsplay” [their latest album, “The Bloom of Youth,” is in this month’s CD reviews column] and appeared on the final album by the late Scottish singer Tony Cuffe, “Sae Will We Yet.”
“Larks and Thrushes” showcases Martin’s command of, and unadulterated affection for, the lyrical, unhurried fiddle style evocative of older Clare, Galway, and Sligo traditions. Instead of coming at you with metaphorical guns blazing, Martin’s playing offers a leisurely, even introspective route through the jigs, reels, hornpipes, and other tunes in her repertoire. But “leisurely” shouldn’t be taken to mean lackadaisical or inert: It’s this approach that reveals in precise detail the nuances and subtle features – the triplets, the rolls, the turns of phrase – so integral to the music.
“I’m enthralled with the players who express a range of color and emotion in their playing,” she says. “[Sligo fiddler] Michael Coleman was a master of this: Even though his playing was fast and technically brilliant, there was a sorrowful quality that ran beneath the surface. I love the music of Sliabh Luachra, and the slower-paced music of Clare and East Galway for the same reason. The rhythmic lilt, the use of space and variation are riveting to me, and I think those elements have had an effect on my own playing style.
A good chunk of Martin’s affinity for Irish music, and the personal dimension to it, came through her studies under master fiddler Seamus Connolly, some of which was supported through a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant. It wasn’t just his technical ability or his encyclopedic knowledge that made an impression, but his familiarity – and in many cases friendship – with so many of the influential musicians who helped preserve and maintain the Irish tradition.
“He shared his music with me from his heart,” says Martin of Connolly, with whom she would later collaborate to publish a book of traditional Irish tunes with accompanying CD, “Forget Me Not: Fifty Memorable Traditional Irish Tunes.”
So it’s fitting that “Larks and Thrushes” contains tunes from this association with Connolly, such as the set of reels, “Eleanor Kane/Gooseberry Bush/Miss Lyon’s Fancy,” which opens the album, or a variant of that venerable hornpipe “The Blackbird” that Connolly and Martin included in “Forget Me Not.” “Hickey’s Reel” also was part of “Forget Me Not” – but Martin acknowledges that, in the interim, the tune had dropped off her radar. Give credit to her friend and longtime collaborator Mark Roberts (he plays flute, whistle, banjo, and bouzouki on the album) for reawakening her interest in it: “Mark sent me a sound file of Paddy Cronin – a great fiddler from Kerry who lived in Boston for some years – playing ‘Hickey’s,’ not knowing I played it. I knew right then and there I wanted to include it on the album.”
The next tune on the track, “Spike Island Lasses,” also has a Connolly connection: “Seamus had played for me a reel-to-reel recording of Johnny McGreevy of Chicago playing the tune, and I loved it. So I asked Beth Sweeney [librarian of the Irish Music Archives at Boston College] to find that recording for me, and I was able to learn it.”
Rooted as she is in traditional music styles, Martin embraces more contemporaneous fashions and techniques for accompaniment and arrangement. Her primary accompanist is guitarist Jim Prendergast, who’s worked in several genres and plays a rich, fairly sophisticated mix of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic backing. Roberts’s five-string banjo on the “Blackbird” set gives it an Americana feel, and his bouzouki adeptly enhances the changing rhythms in a medley comprising the slip jig “Tea in the Morning” with the hop jigs “Foxhunter’s” and “Back in the Dean.”
Two special guests further invigorate “Larks and Thrushes”: Charlie Lennon lends his buoyant but reserved piano to two tracks, including a composition of his in tribute to Clare fiddler Paddy Canny followed by two reels from Canny’s repertoire; Mary MacNamara and her Clare-style concertina bolster a set of polkas and another of jigs, both tracks recorded at MacNamara’s home just as the great Irish blizzard of 2018 was underway.
Near and dear to Martin’s heart is the involvement of her daughter Sarah (fiddle and viola) and Nathaniel (double bass) – their classical influences gracefully intersect with Martin’s fiddle on the medley of jigs “Miss Grace Hay” and O’Carolan’s “Bumper Squire Jones” (Nathaniel also appears on a set of reels later in the album).
“It was such a treat to have my kids involved, and I feel so lucky that they love music,” she says. “While they ultimately wound up going in a classical music direction, they have become more interested in traditional music – and having grown up in house with traditional music, it’s natural for them.”
“The Hermit Thrush” – a Martin original inspired by the birdsong of New England forests – is the shortest track on the album, but it might say the most about Martin’s approach to music, and her interest in how Irish musicians of past generations were able to express moods and sensations stemming from interactions with the natural world.
“While walking in the woods, I’d always hear the hermit thrush’s distinctive trill. Eventually, a little phrase of a tune would come to me, and I would sing it into my phone so as not to forget it. I felt tied to the idea of imitating the trill, but when I began working on it, well, that wasn’t really possible. So instead I went for the atmosphere which produced that sound, conveying the experience of being out in the woods when you can be attuned to nature.”
Martin sees the expressive power of music in global, not just personal, terms. Like many people – whatever their sociopolitical bent – she has felt despair in recent years over a perceived decline in civil discourse and an overall edginess and tension, and this formed a backdrop as she prepared to record “Larks and Thrushes.”
“I believe the arts can have a role in social culture when there are events or a set of circumstances that dramatically affect us,” she explains. “There are, of course, innumerable ways to express that in art. Some may choose to highlight the contentiousness and conflict. My art was meant to be subtler, through making music in which one could find a quiet sort of joy. I’m certainly not trying to save the world, but simply trying to give people a sense of where I go to when I hear this music: a deep, quiet place where you can enjoy the moment for what it is.”
For more about Laurel Martin, see laurelmartin.com.